Public Transportation – A cultural and philosophical journey

Sitting with my headphones and a book, I realized I hadn’t read past this one sentence for a while. My mind kept wandering to surreal questions. I kept questioning the symbiotic relationship between nature and man, how balance in nature depends on a complex harmony between its constituent elements, and how these elements are affected by this balance. Then I bumped my head.

I jumped (involuntarily), hit my head on the iron rod and grabbed on to the railing for dear life. The shared auto with eight people playing twister, cramping body and breath, came to a halt and I hear the words “Periyar nilayam.” That presumably meant me.

Philosophy Lesson 1: Thy first encounters can be bumpy. (No philosophy is complete without a thou or a thy)


My first experience in the city’s main bus stand didn’t get much better as my queries of “Aravind Hospital Bus Anna” were met with bus numbers I frantically searched to no avail (I am yet to see those numbers). The only successful strategy I found was – hope. ‘Hope’ that the next bus bending the tight corner (with physics defying precision), is going your way, even if you don’t know what “your way” exactly is. My way back required me to..ahem.. communicate with bus drivers, conductors or the local junta for directions and ‘hope’ they won’t lead me down the wrong path. Thankfully, for many of the locals, Tamil is not the only mode of communication. Some know this eloquent mix of English words, Tamil fillers and sign language, which seem to be part of the training curriculum for most drivers and conductors. These charming yet exaggerated attempts result in relative comprehension about half the time. After a quick thank you and still no idea about what I’m supposed to do, I just try to remember – C’est la vie!

Philosophy Lesson 2: Thou shall remember Shawshank Redemption’s pop philosophy to get around a new city, because “Hope is a good thing..and ‘apparently’.. no good thing ever dies” (I digress intentionally)


That story was from about a month ago. Since then I have moved to a nice apartment, made a few (two to be precise) friends outside work and know how to feed myself. Ordinarily, my current knowledge of surroundings and living situation would be early stages of settlement into my new abode, which also includes a surety of how I will get to work. This surety has eluded my ‘institutionalization’ in Madurai. The only surety I have is me mimicking a mad person yelling names (phonetically) of a couple of areas close to my home with the hope of a head nod from the bus driver. Considering my voice hasn’t gone completely hoarse yet, I’d say the public transportation in this city isn’t half bad (ONLY in terms of frequency though)

Philosophy Lesson 3: If thou shall loose thy voice trying to reach thy destination, its time thou write a nasty letter to the municipality about horrific transportation.


The way to and from work is either from a bus or an auto. I gave up looking for bus numbers or asking shared autos its heading and decided to just jump onto any of the two going in a general known direction with a hope that few subsequent turns will be avoided. I learned a lot about people in Madurai from my travels in these public and semi-public transportations. A couple of weeks back I was standing in a bus homeward bound. During rush hour, that can mean having your torso and bottom half of your body occupying spaces in two different vertical (in extreme cases – horizontal) planes. Unfortunately my bottom half was closer to the entrance (or exit) and an old woman gets on the bus and slams a tub of fish big enough to bathe a five year old on my foot. I would protest but thankfully the conductor beat me to it, only to have his authority shredded by a feisty old woman who not only found a seat in the crowded space but also gave everyone a lesson in efficient space management (and overwhelming control over their sense of smell). Moreover – people didn’t really mind a bit of squeezing and maneuvering in creative ways and adjusted for the confidence exuding geriatric.

Philosophy Lesson 4: Thou shall recall the teachings of great yogics to compensate for limited spaces, especially in presence of elders.


Shared autos here are a whole new experience. Though built for a maximum of five, it creates a space time warp to seat ten at least. Apart from laws of efficient space management I spoke of earlier, the auto follows another unsaid rule in Indian public transportation; a male and female will never (NEVER), sit next to each other, unless they are known to each other. Even when size variations are favorable, ten people are difficult to fit into a single auto (I sense some of you trying to create a word puzzle). Hence, a woefully painful situation may arise when four men are resting their behinds on the metal rod behind the driver, two sitting at (and sometimes on) their feet and one big madam sits on a, what in this situation would seem like, incredibly comfortable seat for three! Not to mention the other two men snuggled up front with the driver. The reverse is also true, but women get more leeway than men about where they can sit. Personal spaces aren’t personal anymore and everyone comes with their own miasmic essence of daily labor. They are the argument against Pink Floyd’s hallowed words –

“Breathe, breathe in the air

Don’t be afraid to care

Leave but don’t leave me

Look around and chose your own ground”

Philosophy Lesson 5: Thou shall not seek physical comfort when in realms of public transportation.


So finally, the big question of what I have learned about Madurai culture from its transportation. The clichéd answer fits – “helpful people, closed cultured, relatively conservative and all in all nice folks”. However, for me the biggest take away about the culture of Madurai-folk is that they have a slightly different sense of comfort. They find comfort in efficiency, not on a soft bottom for their behinds. They find comfort in maintaining structure in their culture, even if they have to compromise on luxurious aspects like personal space. People in Madurai, believe time to be paramount, judging by not having to yell more than three or four times to find my way. And most importantly, their efforts at helping me, a frustrated outsider, without putting me on the pedestal as some cultures do for those not belonging, was something I will always appreciate. The tone I read in the act is of self-pride and acknowledgement of equality. It could also be ENTIRELY possible, that I’m reading too much into simple actions. Until I’m proved otherwise though, I’ll continue with this belief and strive to see the kaleidoscopic view of what their culture truly envelops.

After graduating with a Masters from Duke University, Nikhil joined Deutsche Bank's Investment Banking group in New York. Following four years of work in the Financial Services and Consulting in New York, Nikhil, taking the advice of some of his favorite authors and innovators, moved back to India to learn about the disruptive nature of innovation. Within an year of traveling, Nikhil interacted with start-ups, social and tech entrepreneurs, and people pursuing interesting projects from across the country. His interest in innovation let him to join an innovation-consulting firm in Hyderabad. Most recently, he designed strategies to help rejuvenate the Microfinance business for one of the leading livelihood promoters in India.

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One thought on “Public Transportation – A cultural and philosophical journey

  1. Nikhil
    Enjoyed this interplay of philosophy, culture, Indian crowd behaviour/instinct, “respectful ” disregard for personal space in the context of public transportation . In my childhood I have experienced all this. Slept on a foot wide luggage rack sloping towards the ceiling with your nose touching the roof on Indian trains. Hung by my toes on the footboard of a Calcutta bus with your other leg lewdly wrapped around another person while reaching out for the little space to wedge your feet on the handlebar placed higher up on the other side in a metaphysical exchange of limbs with yet another person. Cannot do it any more though am often forced to contort myself and share intimate space at airports in India at security or check-in and getting in and out of Indian planes and the shuttle buses where everyone is worried that the flight will leave without them or they will be stranded on the tarmac of Mumbai airport for a lifetime . But in my heart I know that it is I who have changed. For many Indians- Space is what it is intended for. To be filled.
    One image comes to mind. Flashback mid sixties . Alan Whicker( I think) of BBC starting his series on India . Camera only focuses on him from above. His opening lines as the camera starts moving up ” India is a land of 500 million people” camera continues to pan upwards showing more people. Whicker continues” and sometimes you feel they are all standing next to you”. Camera shows Whicker in the throng of humanity which is the morning commute outside Churchgate station.
    As for reaching destinations I am a big fan of Yogi Berra. Some of his quotes
    – you got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going , because you might not get there.
    -I knew I was going to take the wrong train , so I left early.
    – hey Yogi I think we are lost: Ya, but we are making good time.

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